I bite my lip and curse the fear that rises up from my chest, catching in my throat. The car jostles as we leave the gravel forest road and I just want to go back to camp, climb into the safety of the tent, and pull my sleeping bag up over my head. Hide. As we head towards the Blue Ridge Parkway, the dense forest gives way to an undulating landscape of burgundy red and golden yellow-tipped trees etched against the bluebird sky. It’s beautiful, but I can’t enjoy it. I’m stuck in the shadowy images of my mind. I’m thinking of the cliff up ahead, that menacing gray face split with horizontal cracks and the likeness of squinted eyes peering down on me. I imagine trying to tie a figure eight, my fingers fumbling. I picture taking that first step up onto the wall, hands slipping on an all-too bomber hold, legs shaking in place, the weight of the higher pitches piling onto my shoulders, holding me down. It’s happened too many times before. I try to take a deep breath but the car turns sharply and gravity presses my body against the passenger door, forcing the air from my chest.
We’ve all encountered fear at some point during our climbing careers. That’s what makes climbing so attractive — not just the physical challenge, but the mental battle that we face every time we take a step up onto the wall, whether it be in our local climbing gym or at the start of a multi-pitch alpine climb in the High Sierras. I’m convinced as a woman that we’re a bit more sensitive to emotional changes than men, and one could argue this includes the presence or degree of how we experience fear. I also think that female climbers find greater benefits from understanding and support amongst their peers in the community — perhaps because of this heightened emotional sensitivity. There seems to be a stigma in the industry that women climbers are less strong than their male counterparts in both mental and physical regards — and I’m here to clear the air concerning some of these interpretations, focusing specifically on the management of anxiety.
Defining Terms: Fear and anxiety are interrelated and often used interchangeably in context. The only difference is that fear represents a real and present danger, while anxiety amounts to a perceived stress. When a person encounters fear, they often experience physical reactions that are categorized under anxiety. While fear is real in the sport of rock climbing, it can be mitigated with the use of safety equipment and protection, such as ropes and cams. Anxiety is more pervasive because often when we’re climbing safely, we’re physically safe; it’s our brains interpreting irrational fear that cause symptoms of anxiety, such as labored breathing, a racing heart, sweating, and tightening of the muscles.
Identifying Emotional Sensitivity: While a man might tell you to push through anxiety and at times this may work effectively for a person, the point of this article is to demonstrate how we can harness our unwanted emotions and use them as tools while climbing. Instead of simply pushing through your feelings, try doing the opposite — let your body feel. The next time you experience anxiety, allow it to take over. Climb to a safe spot, like a bolt or a piece of protection if you’re leading, hang on the rope, and let your body go limp. Observe what anxiety feels like and what it does to you. Do your palms sweat? Does your heart race? Once you’ve accepted these things, feed into the root of the emotion. When we’re anxious, we’re actually in a state of heightened sensitivity because our bodies are imagining an interpreted fear. You can use this emotional sensitivity to your advantage while climbing — but the first step is identification. Because humans, especially women, can’t just turn off their feelings — it’s more effective to utilize them.
Practice Makes Perfect: It’s best to practice these skills with a trusted partner who’s both willing to let you take your time and also encouraging. Some women find that pairing with other women allows for the most effective process — but to each their own. Once you can identify your anxiety and the way your body reacts to it, focus your attention elsewhere, more precisely, on the route in front of you. Redirect your energy to identifying the next hand and foot hold and work through the underlying sequence in your head. This redirection of energy has probably already started to quell your anxiety, but don’t let it go completely. Use your heightened state of emotional sensitivity to carry you through the climbing sequence — which is likely to be performed with more grace and ease than would have been present without it. Be mindful of your body’s symptoms and do your best to manage these before making a move: if your palms are sweating, dry them with chalk. If your heart is racing, take deep breaths to slow it. When you feel calm enough without having completely let go of your anxiety, channel this emotional sensitivity and make your move. But don’t stop at one move and let the feelings flood you all over again — let this first movement carry into the next one, and then the next, until you’re soaring up the wall with ease.
Using a woman’s heightened emotional sensitivity is a great tool for dealing with anxiety — but while on paper it might sound easy, in real life it’s much more difficult. It’s important to recognize this challenge like you would recognize any physical challenge in climbing — as a work in progress. The hardest thing about this tool is that it only applies to situations of duress. If you don’t ever get anxious while climbing indoors, you won’t be able to practice this indoors. If you only get anxious while leading, you won’t be able to practice this on top-rope. Take these limitations into consideration and don’t be too hard on yourself when it takes longer than you had anticipated to master this skill. Above all else, be sure reach out to other female climbers and share this knowledge — because companionship is one of the things we desire most about the sport of rock climbing.